Crippled Creek

After a century of empty promises, Minneapolis officials are finally poised to spruce up the polluted waterway that meanders through the city's north side. What changed? The buying power of the people who will live there.

Most people around today don't know it, but the north side once had creeks and lakes just as south Minneapolis does. Long before people figured out how much water can boost property values, though, most north-side waterways had been filled in, covered over, and built on. Over the last 100 years, city leaders have often considered the idea of correcting the shortsightedness of their predecessors and turning the north side into another lakes district. In the end, plans were always dismissed as too costly. It appears that now, however, the city is ready to spend the money to bring sparkling blue waters to the north side.

Stack suspects he ought to be thrilled, and in some ways he is. As a member of a group called Friends of Bassett Creek, he has volunteered his own time to work on the city's plan for the Bassett Creek Valley, bordered by Glenwood Avenue on the north, Interstate 394 on the south, Cedar Lake Road on the west, and Interstate 94 on the east. But truth be told, he's a touch melancholy at the prospect of getting what he thought he wanted.

"People are concerned that revitalizing the creek will mean gentrification so they won't be able to afford to live here anymore," he explains. "But this neighborhood is so rundown at this point. It's hardly changed since I moved in. The very same house in Harrison would go for twice as much in Bryn Mawr just a few blocks away. So to me the question is, Where does making an area more livable switch over into gentrification?"

Stack's voice trails off as he looks down at the stream, considering the countless cleanup schemes that haven't come to pass. "With property values going up and the new development going in, it seems like they have the political will to really go through with it this time," he says. "I think creeks are so special. It just seems like such a shame that the water and this beautiful view have been wasted like this for so long because the poor lived over here, so no one cared."


"The annual overflow of Bassett's Creek, resulting from spring thaws in the low land in north Minneapolis, caused a call for the police patrol boat yesterday, and several families, isolated in their homes by the sudden rush of water during the night, were rescued from an uncomfortable position.

--A news report published in the Minneapolis Tribune on March 14, 1913.


Buried deep underground, in the bedrock beneath Bassett Creek, is a valley that stretches south through Minneapolis's chain of lakes toward Bloomington and the Minnesota River. More than 10,000 years ago, water from melting glaciers filled the valley and turned it into a lake. Over time, the Mississippi River filled the lake with deposits--hundreds of feet deep in some places--of sand, silt, and clay.

The land created by these deposits was soggy and unstable and would, thousands of years in the future, swallow up much of what was built on it. But the wetlands, including the meandering Bassett Creek, were an ideal habitat for wildlife. Before the arrival of European settlers in the first half of the 1800s, the Dakota tribe used the creek as a trail route, and they hunted and fished in its tributaries, marshes, and floodplain forests.

No one alive today seems to know what the Dakota called the creek. But settlers who staked claims along its banks dubbed it "the brook." In 1850 a man named Joel Bean Bassett moved into the valley and built the area's first steam-powered sawmill at the mouth of the creek near what's now Theodore Wirth Park. The lumber company he created prospered.

Immigrants from Sweden, Germany, and Norway flocked to Minneapolis in search of work in the growing milling and lumber industries. Between 1880 and 1885 the city's population of 45,000 nearly tripled. Trees were cut down and wetlands were filled in to make way for houses for workers, and within a few short years the Bassett Creek Valley was crisscrossed by railroad tracks. The trains were followed quickly by electric streetcars; one major line ran down Glenwood and Sixth avenues, drawing middle-class families to the Harrison neighborhood. By 1915 the area east of Penn Avenue North had become populated by Victorian homes. Shops opened and the district thrived.

But those living closest to Bassett Creek were struggling. With the wetlands filled in, storm water runoff had nowhere to go. Even the slightest rain overflowed local waterways and flooded homes. Newspaper accounts of the times tell of families needing repeated rescue by police boats. In the spring of 1913, homes within a two-block radius of the creek were flooded so badly that families fleeing the rising water had to huddle on their second floors. When the waters receded, the city sewer engineer told residents that he had been instructed by the city attorney not to help them anymore. "A good many of those people have lived there for years and have been through the same experience before," the engineer explained to newspaper reporters. "They know what is to be expected. They are in that condition on their own responsibility and they must look after themselves."

« Previous Page
Next Page »